Nuclear power is a gift from the earth, but recent disasters clearly demonstrate that we have chosen a very dangerous way to harness its power. The spent fuel rods currently close to meltdown in the Fukushima fuel pool should have been left in the earth.
Nuclear decay inside the earth continually generates all of the energy we need, heating all but the top .1% of the earth’s crust to temperatures hot enough to boil water. As we go deeper into the earth, temperatures go as high as 6,000°C, hotter than the surface of the sun!
Geothermal power plants cleanly and safely harness the earth’s energy by sending water deep into the earth where geothermal heat turns it into steam to run generators. A much safer, smarter solution!
Geothermal power plants require no fuel and produce no waste. Nuclear power plants turn nature’s blessing into a potential disaster by disturbing the earth’s fine balance. Mining, concentrating and shipping uranium to population centers just to boil water is an insane approach.
How did we ever get started down this complex and dangerous path? It was an outgrowth of our military-industrial complex. After the war, the first atomic power plants were made by adapting reactors originally designed to produce plutonium for atomic bombs. In the 1950’s this plutonium output was considered a bonus but today, with 22,000 atomic bombs already produced, it has become a nightmare.
The U.S. spent over seventy billion dollars developing nuclear technology and has budgeted another 200 billion for cleaning up the mess it has created. After the Chernobyl disaster, construction of new nuclear plants was wisely stopped. But memories are short, and recently the idea of a “nuclear renaissance” has taken hold. Insurance companies, however, have refused to cover nuclear plants’ huge liabilities so the U.S. government stepped in and volunteered our tax money to cover all damages above ten billion dollars.
In 2006 we missed a golden opportunity to change the course of our energy future and go down the geothermal path. That year MIT released a detailed study on the potential of a new approach to geothermal power generation that could ultimately make it practical throughout the country.
Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS) are not limited to existing hot water aquifers. They use water as a conveyer belt to carry heat from hot rocks deep underground. Using a closed loop, very little water is consumed. Unfortunately, the Department of Energy, dominated by coal and nuclear interests, ignored the MIT study and in 2007 the geothermal development budget was cut to zero because geothermal was deemed “a mature technology.”
If the DOE had instead channeled some of the billions budgeted for nuclear and “clean coal” to a crash program to develop EGS geothermal, we could be in a much better position today.
The DOE is gradually waking up to this missed opportunity and just last year spent $43 million on geothermal research. Not exactly a Manhattan Project, but a start nonetheless. Geothermal is a serious threat to coal and nuclear interests because it is the only renewable energy source that runs 24/7 and is not dependent on weather or time of day.
Geothermal isn’t new. The world’s first geothermal power plant, in Larderello, Italy, was built in 1911. It is still producing enough electric power for a million homes. In many parts of the world geothermal power is already cheaper than coal or nuclear. The gap is widening daily as coal and nuclear costs skyrocket. 11,000 MW of geothermal capacity is already profitably generating electricity worldwide.
Geothermal produces 26% of the total power in Iceland and the Philippines and 5% in California. About 4,000 MW of new projects are now underway in the U.S in 13 states. Though California generates most of the geothermal power today, projects are now underway in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia.
The powerful coal and nuclear interests are putting up a tough fight to defend their interests. Disinformation and fear mongering about earthquake dangers and ground water pollution are used to stop geothermal projects. The fact is that most of the EGS techniques have already been used for decades in the oil industry.
In the gulf states there are already more than 50,000 oil wells in which water is being injected nearby to push out the remaining oil. The hot water that comes out with the oil is a big problem to dispose of now but by using this heat to generate power it can become a source of income. Over time, the geothermal energy produced at these oil wells could exceed the energy that exists in the oil itself.
Thomas R. Blakeslee is president of The Clearlight Foundation. He lives in Westlake Village, CA.